The California Gold Rush
Finding gold in a river or underground is one way to become rich, and that was true over 150 years ago during the California Gold Rush.
Gold is a precious and valuable metal. It can be used to make things like jewelry, coins, and even parts of technology. People have used gold as a form of money for thousands of years, and it’s still very valuable today. Gold is so precious and scarce (meaning there isn’t a lot of it) that it is measured by the gram and ounce, which are really tiny measurements of weight!
In the 1800s, hundreds of thousands of people moved to California to try to find gold and become rich. This was called the California Gold Rush, and it happened from 1848 to 1850. The first gold of the Gold Rush was found by James W. Marshall in the American River near modern-day Coloma in El Dorado County. But back then, California wasn’t a state yet, and the area was called Sierra Nevada.
When news got out there was gold to be found in California, thousands of people moved to California, including immigrants from around the world. Most of these prospectors—the name for people hunting for gold—flocked to California in 1849 and were known as “forty-niners.”
The population of San Francisco increased from 1,000 people to 25,000 people between 1848 and 1850, and it’s estimated that nearly 100,000 people arrived in California in that time. Not all of these people were prospectors, though. Many of them were the people who built and ran businesses that sold goods and services to the prospectors. In fact, more people became rich selling clothing, equipment, and housing to prospectors than people who became rich from finding gold!
At the gold rush’s peak, some people collected thousands of dollars’ worth of gold in only a few days. Over six months, they might collect six years’ worth of wages by panning for gold in rivers. By 1850, most of the gold easily found in rivers and on the ground had been collected, leaving only gold deposits in caves that had to be removed with mining and dynamite, which was expensive. At that time, only big companies could afford to pay to find gold this way.
In the end, it’s estimated over 750 pounds of gold were taken from the ground in the California Gold Rush. That’s more than $2 billion worth of the precious metal. Gold is still valuable today. Most coins aren’t made with gold any more, but jewelry, dental filings, medals and awards, and electronic parts, are.
So, if you ever travel to California, keep your eyes open for anything yellow and sparkly in the dirt—it might be gold!